A few obscure Web-based email services are offering a neat feature. They allow you to set a time limit that the email will remain on the computer of the email’s recipient. After that time limit, the email literally disintegrates and can no longer be accessed. Some, such as bigstring.com, allow you to also “delete” the email whenever you send the command. This works exactly as it sounds: I send you an e-mail that you can read. But when I give the command, you’ll no longer be able to read the message. You’ll click the link in your mailbox and it will open to a blank page. This works because the e-mail actually sits on the provider’s servers.

On a similar note, because Germany has become so concerned that mega-websites such as Facebook are invading users’ privacy, one German professor developed software called X-Pire. X-Pire causes documents such as pictures to be encrypted before being uploaded. Since a special plugin is needed to view the image, the user of X-Pire also has the power to cause the photo to “expire” at any time.

These erasing and expiring services sound great–and they certainly do offer some limited protection for data that you want some control over. In both cases, you’re willingly allowing others to see your documents or photos. But you can remove those documents at any time, preventing anyone else from accessing them, and taking away the intended audience’s power to do anything further with them. There are obvious problems with these systems, however.

The most glaring problem is that they give only limited security. Erasable email is fine–as long as the receiving party never realizes that this is the system you’re using. If they ever do realize it, it’s quite easy for them to save an image of the email before you delete it from your end. The same holds true for photos. Even if the software disables the copy or save feature, it’s simple enough to use a screen-saving utility to take a picture of either the email or the photo. Another problem, at least with the X-Pire utility, is that it requires the use of a plug-in, which creates hurdles even for your intended audience.

Certainly the best way of guarding your important data is by never emailing it in the first place; you certainly never want to post it to social media sites. Instead, use one of the many cloud-based collaboration sites to store documents. By giving only authorized personnel the password, you’ll keep a tighter rein on who can and cannot view your important data. Those with only the most basic security needs might find their needs filled by something such as Google Docs or Zoho.com. Those with important confidential records, though, or records that are criticial to the very survival of your business will want to invest in a dedicated data center such as RACK59.